Is DNA code? This question has been answered affirmatively by some in an attempt to argue that DNA requires an intelligent author. Therefore the more fundamental question is “Did DNA arise from a natural process or from an intelligent designer?”
This is a legitimate question, but not a unique one. Throughout history, millions of similar questions have been asked, all having the basic form of “Does X have a natural or a supernatural cause?” Plug pandemics, lighting or psychotic behavior into X as examples.
For most of these millions of questions of causation throughout history, there have been 2 basic approaches.
- The supernaturalists, usually working from an impoverished understanding of the mechanisms in the natural world, have declared that, as there is no known natural mechanism available to provide causation, we must assign a supernatural cause to X.
There was a time when such a default to supernatural causation was less inappropriate. In the early days of science, when the web of natural explanations was in its infancy, pondering the possibility of a supernatural entity behind amazing phenomena such as lighting would have been an understandable temptation for emotional humans either impatient for an answer or already possessing the vested interest of an ideology with a ready-made supernatural agent.
However, today this web of natural explanations has exploded into an enormous inter-connected matrix of well-vetted mechanisms that, at no point, are forced to incorporate supernatural agency. And the web of coherent supernatural explanations? It does not exist. Supernaturalists generally merely posit invisible, inscrutable, untestable and unfalsifiable discrete entities that have no necessary causal connections. There is no cohesive web.
The primary tactic of the supernaturalist is to ignore past failures, point to a new puzzling phenomenon, and again suggest that supernatural causation is the only appropriate conclusion. However, the enormous weight of their long history of failures are not only justifiably applied to our expectations of causality: it is highly irrational to do otherwise. We have a rational imperative to expect nothing but natural causes. The expectation of supernatural causation is indicative of an unwarranted presupposition that can be usually tracked to an emotional disposition of some sort.
- On the other side, the naturalist confronts the question with the expectation that the phenomenon will have a material cause. This is the rational expectation given the enormous successes of candidate material causes that have been posited for phenomena over several thousands of years.
This materialist does not quickly default to any explanation that does not mesh neatly with the existing explanations in the web of scientific knowledge. This is not to say he is claiming supernatural causation to be impossible, but rather that supernatural causation has a dismal track record, and does not deserve serious consideration.
Can the supernaturalists redeem themselves? Only by establishing a solid track record of successful explanations of causation that have either a clear mechanism or significant predictive power. For example, if some claim that prayer leads to healing, perhaps the mechanism that would elucidate how the physical mouths of the praying interfaced with the spiritual ears of a deity, and subsequently how the spiritual hands of that deity fought off the physical disease might be intractable or ineffable. However, if statistics clearly demonstrated that those prayed for recovered at a far greater rate than those who were not prayed for, then this would provide predictive power that would justify a serious consideration of the claim.
So even if a natural explanation for a phenomenon does not emerge within the lifetime of the amateur scientists, they do not default to a supernatural explanation their deathbeds. Lighting, no doubt, was disconcerting to many naturalists for centuries as its explanation required the extended web of naturalistic web of explanations that we today have now finally uncovered. However, those past materialists who understood the historical successes of naturalism when applied to other inquires, and the complete failure of supernaturalism claims, were warranted in their confidence that the cause was in fact material, even if not revealed in their lifetimes.
History has not smiled on the claims and predictions of the supernaturalists. Modern claims of divine miracles evaporate under the scrutiny of science, and there is not a single domain of inquiry that can demonstrate supernatural causation as even a promising candidate. Supernatural causation remains a logical possibility, but, based on induction, is highly improbable. It is not surprising within this context of historical precedent that supernaturalist are now employing semantic arguments as we shall soon see with their use of the pregnant term “code” as a descriptor of DNA.
It was just a few short decades ago that we encountered yet another phenomenon just beyond the extremities of the web of existing material explanations: the marvelous discovery of DNA, the origin of which we do not yet have a well-developed explanation. And once again we have supernaturalists claiming a supernatural cause. But this time it’s not just something such as the causation of lighting for which a concession to a natural cause was only mildly embarrassing. What is at stake for many supernaturalists is the credibility of their holy scriptures in which their deity designed humans. What is at stake for the materialists is the preservation of a methodology that should attempt to approximate pure objectivity and consequently gives no place to bald claims of divine revelation or to emotional predispositions.
To further set the stage for our discussion of DNA, it might be wise to remind readers that, prior to an examination of a phenomenon, an examination of the examiner is necessary. An introspective look at our biases will allow us to more closely approximate objectivity-the very foundation of science. It is a natural inclination for us to suppose that, had we lived centuries ago, we would not have adopted the current beliefs of the period. However, centuries ago phenomena such as fire or lightning were ontologically distant from any conceivable material explanation, and the infancy of the web of interlaced material causes prevented those happily drawing “truth” from the entrenched religions from taking it seriously. Nearly everyone defaulted to a supernatural explanation of the causation. How could one not? Lightning was so awful and powerful and amazing that it invariably evoked a strong religious response from its beholders, and much more so from its victims.
In addition, the psychological demand for an immediate answer to life’s mysteries far too quickly overruns our patience in the context of slow arriving evidence. In ancient days before the precedent of material causation was well-established, a default to the epistemologically satisfying immediate answer of supernatural causation was too human an impulse to ignore. Today, in spite of learning to lean far more heavily on science, we are still human.
It is in this historical and psychological context that we are now examining this claim that DNA is “code”.
Let’s begin with an analogy. Al and Zeb are on a camping trip in the woods.
Al: Hey come sit over here on this chair.
Zeb: What chair?
Al: The chair right in front of you!
Zeb: Do you mean this stump?
Al: That stump is a chair.
Zeb: No it’s not. A chair is created for people to sit on.
Al: Well, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing: sitting on it.
Zeb: I mean it had to be created for that purpose. I doubt this stump was created with sitting in mind.
Al: How do you know that?
Zeb: I don’t, but it certainly does not seem designed for sitting. I would have designed it much differently if it had been designed for sitting.
Al: But you do agree it can be a chair, right?
Zeb: Alright, I’ll call it a chair if it will make you happy and I can sit down. (Zeb sits on the “chair.”)
Al: So you agree that your chair was created, right?
Zeb: It was created by something obviously. But it looks to me as if it could have been just a natural process.
Al: How can you say that after you’ve just admitted it’s a chair?
Zeb: Calling it a chair does not mean it was designed, and saying it was created does not mean the creator was sentient.
Al: But if you look at any definition of “chair”, you’ll discover that it implies design.
Zeb: But that’s not what I’m implying when I say “chair”.
Al: But it was created, right?
Al: So your chair had a designer.
Zeb: You’re equivocating on your definitions. For me a chair needs no designer, and a creator does not need to be sentient.
Al: Then give me an example of a case where a chair had no designer.
Zeb: But you’re the one who initially suggested that I call this a chair simply because I planned to sit on it. You’re still equivocating on your definitions.
The previous dialog highlights the semantic problem with this issue. The words “chair” and “code” are so subjectively laden with connotations of sentient design that the intent of the speaker is often ignored.
Under the semantics remains the question, “Is there a sentient agent behind the creation of the stump?” It is in these situations that conventional definitions must be replaced with stipulative definitions if the discussion is to advance. This is common practice among scientists, but lay scientists often fall into semantic traps.
Another way we can remove improper connotations from the word “code” or any other word we use to denote the process from DNA replication to the emergence of a new organism as a product of that DNA is through a thought experiment. Consider all the constituent processes. Is there any constituent process within the larger process that is not merely a chemical process, and therefore requires a sentient designer? No. Each constituent process is merely a chemical process. Whence then arises the notion of “code” as requiring a sentient designer? It arises from metaphorical inference. When we see an aggregate process that mirrors something in our subjective human experience, we default to a human metaphor. In this case, we default to the human activity of designing. Does the natural subjective defaulting to this metaphor mean that we are then constrained to accept sentient agency in the referent process? No. That remains to be tested.
So the use of a salient metaphor from the domain of sentient agents to describe a process does not mean that process itself requires a sentient agent.
Are the current apparent parallels between DNA “code” and human generated code significant? Let’s call them interesting. This would indeed be a prime opportunity for the supernaturalists to finally pull one off by substantiating their stance that DNA was designed by a sentient agent. However, the modus operandi is the same old tired method employed against heliocentrism, germ theory, electromagnetic theory and the like. Instead of making predictions themselves that would confirm their hypothesis of supernatural causation, they are once again merely pointing at holes in our current understanding, and suggesting that we will never discover a natural cause. Perhaps we won’t. But the scientific mind, familiar with historical precedent, does not quickly default to supernatural explanations, in spite of their emotional allure.
And the prospect of a substantiated case of supernatural causation? I’m not holding my breath.